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Amid a celebration of the Green Line’s first year, a call for more light rail

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman speaking during Monday's anniversary celebration.

On the surface, Monday’s commemoration was about the better-than-projected success of the Green Line.

In paying homage to the region’s second light rail line, Metro Transit staffers wore green t-shirts and handed out green buttons to riders entitling them to discounts at merchants along the route.

But the press conference marking the one-year anniversary of the line’s opening quickly turned into something else: an exercise in saying “I told you so,” as politely as possible.

“There were a lot of battles, there were a lot of meetings, there was a lot of uncertainty about the project,” said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, “But we put our minds to it to get this project done. Now, a year later, it is hard to imagine that this project hasn’t always been a part of our community.”

Ridership is exceeding expectations as is development along the line — both in downtown St. Paul as well as along University Avenue. But the speakers who lined up to praise the courage and foresight of political leadership (including their own) to stick to the long process of planning, funding and building the 9.8 mile transit line couldn’t help but talk about the next steps.

Just as the Green Line had opponents and controversy, so too will lines unbuilt.

“I’m an old baseball player, and it’s good to hit home runs,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. “We’ve now hit two home runs on our LRT lines here in the Twin Cities,” he said referencing the Blue Line, between downtown Minneapolis and the Mall of America, and now the Green Line.

“This was a tough project to get done but we did it because we knew this was important for the future of our community,” he said. “These are complicated projects to put on the street. But we are marching methodically forward and we’re going to get these lines built.

McLaughlin predicted that the expansion of the Green Line into the southwest Minneapolis suburbs, the expansion of the Blue Line into the northwest suburbs and the proposed Gateway Corridor bus rapid transit line between Woodbury and downtown St. Paul will succeed as well.

“It’s a great day to celebrate the success of the Green Line and to reaffirm our support for this vision moving forward,” he said.

Metro Transit mascot Skip Traffic was on hand for the celebration.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Metro Transit mascot Skip Traffic was on hand
for the celebration.

The region is less certain about that vision, however. Two active lawsuits have challenged the alignment of Southwest LRT through the Kenilworth Corridor, between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. And McLaughlin is part of the group of elected officials trying to carve $341 million out of the budget for the Green Line extension to Eden Prairie. Getting the budget back down to $1.66 billion is considered necessary to keep that project alive.

Even at that cost, however, the Legislature did not come up with the state’s 10 percent share of the project costs this year. And Republican control of the House makes that uncertain in 2016 as well.

The Green Line is unlike the other LRT lines — both existing and planned. Rather than connecting the region’s urban areas with the suburbs and major destinations like the airport and Mall of America, the Green Line operates more like a street car, helping people already within the two large cities move within them. While there were complaints early on that it was slower than promised, taking 50-minutes-plus to travel from end to end (since cut to 45 minutes), most riders are more interested in shorter segments within the 9.8 miles of new track between Union Depot in St. Paul and Downtown East Station in Minneapolis.

Ridership trends for the Green Line are clear, however. The number of riders used to secure federal funding for the $1 billion project was 26,600 a day midweek in 2014 and 27,500 this year. But by the second week of service last June it hit 31,851 a day and moved upward throughout the year. Average ridership is now 35,000 per day. Those are where the system expected to be in 2025, said Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb. For two weeks in early May there were just over and just under 40,000 riders per weekday. That’s what the daily ridership had originally been projected to be in 2030.

Buttons were handed to riders entitling them to discounts
at merchants along the route.

Ridership for the first full year is expected to reach 11.3 million. The total ridership includes weekend ridership which was in the 16,000 to  25,000 range, more when the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Vikings were playing football at TCF Stadium.

The impact on development is less certain, and mostly anecdotal if still significant. Many of the completed and planned developments on University came from developers who said the Green Line was an important factor. A retrofitting of the Pioneer-Press building from office to apartments announced Monday was also attributed to the new rail line.

Coleman even pointed to recent demographic updates that put the St. Paul population at just under 300,000 as evidence of the economic impact of the Green Line. “The Green Line has proven to be what we always knew it would be, a catalytic event that created a first-class transportation system and helped us build on the future of the city of St. Paul,” he said.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/16/2015 - 09:24 am.

    Ridership numbers are meaningless

    unless they’re accompanied by revenue figures that tell us whether the line is losing money. Because if it is losing money, I don’t think most taxpayers would believe it was worth it to maintain it as an on-going line item expense and consequently, that should be factored into whether any more lines are built.

    • Submitted by Jim Buscher on 06/16/2015 - 09:44 am.

      Buses too?

      So by that logic should we drop the bus routes? They make back even less revenue than our LRT lines do.

      I wouldn’t be so bold to say “most taxpayers”. I think the majority in our metro area support mass transit. Despite fares and advertising unable to cover all costs associated with it. Not everyone can drive a car or afford one.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/16/2015 - 10:30 am.

        I bet not

        Polls show most Minnesotans opposed to the LRT. And the government shouldn’t be running a bus service either. Transporting individuals, whether it’s in a taxi, buses or trains, is a private sector function and is not a valid role for government. In other words, the taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for it. A private company should own and operate this type of service.

        • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 06/16/2015 - 12:37 pm.

          “Polls show”

          Please provide names and dates for these polls.

        • Submitted by Colin Brownlow on 06/16/2015 - 01:17 pm.

          How so

          On what basis do you determine transport is not a valid role for government. Is establishing and maintaining a public road system a valid role for government? A complex system of government operation, oversight and regulation has arisen around automobile transportation. Is that a valid role for government? If so, then why is transport of other forms not a valid role for government? If the whole role of government in automobile transport is not a valid form of government – then would you be prepared to live with the consequences of full privatization of the automobile transportation system?

    • Submitted by Eric Peterson on 06/16/2015 - 09:56 am.

      Cars too?

      While we are at it that entire 494/694 has been a huge non-revenue producing money pit for decades. Let’s scrap that too.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/16/2015 - 10:39 am.

        The highway system is constitutional role of government

        The taxpayers’ support of highways is provided for in the Constitution both from an interstate commerce reason, moving goods to market, and a national defense reason, There’s been no connection between light rail and moving goods to market or as a national defense asset that I know of.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 06/16/2015 - 10:39 am.

    Like Mr. Tester, there are people who prefer to lose money…

    …- their personal monies – on their CARS !! They also prefer to lose public monies on roads designed for automobiles. Summed up across the whole metro population, what would these “losses” come to ?? You’d have to add up all the individuals’ purchase cost, interest, insurance, maintenance, accident costs, fuel costs – and god forbid we should add in a pollution cost – and then sum all the road design, construction, and maintenance costs, then calculate a grand total sum. I think this number would knock your socks off.

    It is a fallacy, yet a typical opponent’s argument, to count expenses only against one form of transportation (the one they oppose) and not another (their personal favorite).

    So I’m with you, Mr. Tester. Let’s look at rail line costs, ALL of them – and then let’s compare with ALL the costs of the culture of the automobile. But let’s not sow confusion by suggesting we focus on only one side of the ledger.

  3. Submitted by Sharon Fortunak on 06/16/2015 - 10:45 am.

    Green Line

    Good job on the Green Line. The bus service is good, as well.

  4. Submitted by David Markle on 06/16/2015 - 11:50 am.

    The latest story

    The current mantra accompanying the self congratulation about ridership is: greater frequency of service (every 10 minutes, when on schedule) compared to the former No. 16 bus. That’s maximum frequency, given the problems of running a train on the street (two trains, in downtown Minneapolis). A modern University Avenue streetcar line could run every five minutes if desired, would have given better service (many more locations to get on or off) and would have cost a mere fraction of the huge amount needed to set up the Green Line.

    I see little of the alleged “foresight” on the part of public officials. In fact the Green Line fails to meet a basic criterion set forth by St. Paul’s own planners: that LRT should get riders to their destinations near the line sooner than by driving a car and parkng. We still lack a speedy link between the downtowns and points between: a high speed link that would have served as a true Metro area trunk line and helped reduce freeway congestion. The Met Council shouldn’t have let development-obsessed St. Paul officials have their way by putting this train on the street, a billion-dollar train that runs as a limited service streetcar line. (And for that matter, the development benefits aren’t at all clear.)

    It particularly galls me that our one year old Green Line resembles Boston’s pokey Green Line installed more than 100 years ago. A century ago, Boston had learned its lesson and began tunneling transit, between Harvard Square and downtown Boston. Imagine the problems if they had continued putting rails on the street!

    Folks here, both public officials and the public, need to learn the difference between trains and streetcars. We need better planning to meet future transportation and transit needs.

  5. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 06/16/2015 - 12:00 pm.

    Defense as a primary reason for the Interstate system is…

    …listed in a series of “myths” by the Dept of Transportation:

    “Defense was the primary reason for the Interstate System.

    The primary justifications for the Interstate System were civilian in nature. In the midst of the Cold War, the Department of Defense supported the Interstate System and Congress added the words “and Defense” to its official name in 1956 (“National System of Interstate and Defense Highways”). However, the program was so popular for its civilian benefits that the legislation would have passed even if defense had not been a factor.”

    In a speech Eisenhower wrote and given to the nation’s governors, the reasons offered were:

    Safety – an annual toll of nearly 40,000 killed and 1.3 million injured.
    Congestion – wastes billions of hours in detours and jams
    Courts – civil suits related to traffic clog up our courts.
    Economy – bad roads nullify the efficiency by inefficiency in their transport.
    Defense – “to meet the demands of catastrophe or defense, should an ATOMIC WAR come.”

    Historian Stephen Ambrose articulated further on Eisenhower’s actual rationale:

    ” [It] was a public-works program on a massive scale, indeed the largest public-works program in history, which meant that the government could put millions of men to work without subjecting itself to the criticism that this was “make-work” of the [Depression-era] WPA or PWA variety. By tailoring expenditures for highways to the state of the economy, Eisenhower could use the program to flatten out the peaks and valleys in unemployment. [Ambrose, Stephen E., Eisenhower: Volume Two: The President, Simon and Schuster, 1984, p. 250.]

    Ambrose elaborated on this point:

    One of Eisenhower’s favorite programs for reducing the peaks and valleys on the GNP chart was the Interstate System. Back in November 1955, the President had talked to [economic advisor Gabriel] Hauge, then informed [Secretary of Commerce Sinclair] Weeks that he wanted Commerce to plan to use the Interstate System for managing the economy. As Hauge put it, “That was the fundamental purpose of the plan in the initial instance.” [p. 301]”

  6. Submitted by Richard Callahan on 06/16/2015 - 02:36 pm.

    I’m all for public transportation, but I can’t help but think light rail is a 20th century solution to a modern problem. With autonomous autos in the near future, I think there are more far sighted and creative ways to invest a billion dollars.

    • Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 06/16/2015 - 05:52 pm.

      So, you’re against road expansion like on I35E?

      Seeing as autonomous vehicles will far better utilize road capacity, obviously we shouldn’t be spending billions on new road capacity now. Right?

  7. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 06/16/2015 - 05:29 pm.

    Self Driving Positions

    I’m all for self driving cars–I think they’ll be a great boon to society as they’ll take the weakest link out of the driving chain: humans. But the reality is autonomous cars are more than just a couple of weeks away and even when they hit the market, it’ll take a decade or two before they get significant market penetration.

    In the meantime we’re long overdue for some mass transit improvements. The light rail system should have been built in its entirety forty years ago, yet we’re still fighting to get a new line built every ten years or so.

  8. Submitted by Dan Berg on 06/17/2015 - 11:56 am.

    A way to start figuring this out

    We should work hard to have the funding for each type of transit come directly from user fees. Freeways, highways and arterial roads would be funded by some combination of tolls and mileage/weight formula while buses and rail 100% through user fees (buses paying for the roads themselves through the same for mentioned formula). Surface streets get paid for through property taxes as they provide general access to the property that can be accessed by most modes from walking to heavy trucks and emergency vehicles.

    At a minimum this will eliminate the unsupported arguments from all sides on which mode might be more efficient. In the end no matter what mode you use you can’t build your way out of congestion. Increasing capacity will just fill up to the point where people begin to change their behavior. We all pay the costs of transit as a whole so we might as well pay at the point of use so we can encourage efficient behavior. If we are worried about people not having the funds to travel some “reasonable” amount because of income then lets be honest and find a separate source to provide those people with the money or help they need rather than screwing up the whole system.

    In the end an efficient system will be better for everybody, business, the environment, commuters and those with limited resources. Designing a system based on political ideas or affiliations is a recipe for the least efficient system imaginable.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 06/17/2015 - 01:09 pm.

      User Fees

      Charging people user fees for various transportation options is a bit of a non-starter for several reasons.

      1. They’re very regressive. People who can least afford the fees are hit the hardest with the charges. You are in effect making the poor even poorer, helping to perpetuate a cycle of underclass people.

      2. It’s tough to charge a user fee for walking or biking. Do you gate the sidewalks? Do you charge people for shoes and bikes, whether or not they use the sidewalks and trails? If so, then you’re getting away from the user fee concept and into other forms of taxation. And you create whole new classes of taxation as you’re not going to tax high heeled shoes as much as running shoes.

      3. Toll roads are pretty much a non-starter if you’ve ever tried them. They slow down traffic, take a lot of land for the booths, and create a whole new bureaucracy to administer the tools, which just raises costs.

      4. And fundamentally, charge user fees just feeds into tribalism, which is something we’re trying to get away from in society. The whole notion of building a society is to create a cooperative framework where we all benefit, not one where everybody is in it for themselves and the rest can go float face down in the river. We have city, state, and federal governments for the express purpose of tackling projects that we as individuals cannot handle.

      Let’s not erode that progress by fostering an environment of petty individualism that promotes barriers between our fellow citizens. Instead, break them down. After all, at the end of the day we’re all in this together.

  9. Submitted by Dan Berg on 06/17/2015 - 06:08 pm.

    hyperbole isn’t constructive

    1. Transportation is already largely user fee based only now the subsidies are applied based on transit mode rather than by individual need. This causes two significant problems, it concentrates poverty around the most heavily subsidized modes and it subsidizes everybody equally whether they would need it or not. It would be more efficient to create a lower cost overall system (everybody pays less) and simply subsidies those who are in need.

    2. As stated in my initial post surface city streets would be paid for by property taxes (I would not exempt churches or schools) as they provide access to those properties. Those multi-modal spaces allow nearly universal access to neighborhoods for no additional charge. This is the best way to encourage density and that people are encouraged to spend their income close to home in local businesses. Bikes and other non-auto traffic can be licensed just as cars and charged in a similar fashion.

    3. Toll roads would not need to be everywhere but would be one option for where they best fit. There are also technical solutions to the issues of toll booths and needing to slow down. We employee some of them in the Twin Cities with MNPass so that really isn’t a problem any more.

    4. I don’t see how being honest about the costs of various transit causes tribalism beyond that we already have. Our current system of making decisions based on political ideologies which are in turn based around pitting liberals, conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, blacks, whites, hispanics, against each other fosters fear, distrust and tribalism more than good information ever will. No less collaboration involved with building transportation around the ideals I have put forward. It would however be one based on information rather than hyperbole such as implying that those who have different view points automatically want to see everybody but themselves drown in the river. That is what causes tribalism.

    What progress would we erode by being honest and connecting prices of transit to the costs incurred by that transit? What is petty about asking people to understand the impact of the resources they consume by paying for them? Why would we purposefully create a system based on incorrect or insufficient information knowing that it costs society (and the environment) as a whole more?

    (PS) I wouldn’t use a gas tax to pay for transportation. If we want to eliminate the impact fossil fuels have we charge the tax as the carbon is taken out of the ground (or released into the atmosphere) and use it to directly pay for offsetting that impact on the environment. It might make gas very expensive but that is fine by me. I don’t care what energy source we use as long as it is truly the most efficient one and not the one represented by the biggest lobbying group.

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